The Blue Devils have been riding high so far this season en route to three nonconference blowouts. But the time has come for a reality check.
Duke will host No. 2 Louisville in Cameron Indoor Stadium Wednesday at 7 p.m. to begin ACC play. The Blue Devils hold a 32-12 record all-time in conference openers, but this year’s challenger could be their toughest opponent of the season.
“As the competition rises, it becomes harder to do simple things,” head coach Kara Lawson said. “It becomes harder to take care of the ball, it becomes harder to not foul, it becomes harder to execute.”
To put it simply, the odds are not in Duke’s favor.
Both the Blue Devils (3-0) and Cardinals (4-0) enter the contest undefeated, neither having won any of their games by less than 18 points. However, one major difference remains hidden within that stat—the Cardinals' blowouts include one against a ranked opponent.
Louisville humiliated then-No. 20 DePaul last Friday in a 116-75 victory, the highest-scoring game in school history. If anything, this contest provided a “what not to do” guide for Duke when facing such a formidable opponent. The Cardinals scored 74 of their points in the paint, a total aided by 32 fast break points. On top of that, they won the rebounding battle 55-40, stifling DePaul’s momentum on both ends of the floor.
Despite Louisville’s dominance down low, Duke won’t be able to focus all of its attention in the paint. Senior guard Dana Evans, the reigning ACC Player of the Year, leads the Cardinals with 20.3 points and 5.3 assists per game. McDonald’s All-American Hailey Van Lith, meanwhile, is second on the team with 16 points per game and is shooting 47.4% from three through her first four college contests.
“The ACC is the toughest conference in the country,” Lawson said. “So the lineup of guards that [we’re] going to see and have to go against night-in and night-out, they're going to look a little different than the guards that we've seen in our first couple games.”
Perhaps Louisville’s only weakness is inside depth. Outside of the Cardinals’ go-to rebounders Olivia Cochran and Elizabeth Dixon, there isn’t much to stand in the way of second-chance buckets or extra possessions for the Blue Devils.
If Duke wants any chance at an upset, however, it will have to cut down on its turnovers.
The Blue Devils have struggled in that department this season, averaging 16 giveaways per game. While they’ve been able to get by with those mistakes against lesser opponents, Louisville will not be so forgiving. And with the Cardinal defense forcing an average of 19.5 turnovers per game and averaging 24.5 points off those turnovers, the pressure is going to be greater than anything Duke has seen thus far.
“You're not going to be great every game at [limiting turnovers]. There's going to be some good games, there's going to be some bad games, and we were not good at taking care of the ball today,” Lawson said after Saturday’s win against East Carolina. “It's an area that we're gonna watch.”
The Blue Devils’ path to victory Wednesday is slim, but that path can be made wider if they stick to what’s been working, namely maximizing their 3-point output. As each game has passed this season, a greater emphasis has been placed on deep shooting, culminating in 33 attempts from beyond the arc against East Carolina.
Overall, Lawson says she’s focused on a few key factors as the season moves forward.
“We're going to have to not turn it over, doesn't matter who the opponent is, we're going to have to not foul [and] we're going to have to execute really well on the offensive end,” Lawson said. “If we can do those three things, we can give ourselves a chance to win games.”
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